Civilised Tourism

by Shih-Wen Chen

Chiang Mai — the setting of the 2012 Chinese blockbuster movie Lost in Thailand (Ren zai jiongtu zhi Tai jiong 人再囧途之泰囧) — has become a popular new destination for Chinese tourists. Despite welcoming the increase in tourist revenue, many Chiang Mai residents are appalled at the visitors’ littering, spitting and other rude behaviours. It is not an unusual story.

By 2020, the number of Chinese travelling abroad is expected to rise to 100 million; China will become the fourth-largest source of overseas tourists worldwide. As with Thailand, many countries have already reaped great financial benefits from the influx of visitors from the People’s Republic. But local citizens in a number of places have increasingly expressed concerns in various media regarding the behaviour of Chinese tourists, using adjectives such as ‘tasteless’, ‘obnoxious’ and ‘loud’. Chinese tourists have become so notorious that, in October 2012, the French fashion house Zadig & Voltaire announced that they would ban Chinese guests from their new luxury boutique hotel in Paris. (They quickly recanted after the Chinese public reacted with outrage.)

Wayne Arnold of the New York Times commented: ‘The tide of travellers from China mirrors the emergence of virtually every group of overseas tourists since the Romans, from Britons behaving badly in the Victorian era and ugly Americans in postwar Europe to the snapshot-happy Japanese of the 1980s’. Aware of the negative image their citizens were projecting abroad, the Chinese government launched a campaign for ‘civilised tourism’ (wenming lüyou 文明旅游) in 2006, and the Party’s Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilisation released official guidelines for travellers overseas. These range from ‘be polite and respectful’ and ‘wear appropriate clothes and don’t spit’ to ‘be quiet while eating’.

For over a century, there have been attempts to control the behaviour of Chinese going overseas. A comparison of the 2006 guidelines with a 1905 code of conduct distributed to Chinese students in Japan reveals many similarities. The early twentieth-century list included the following prohibitions: ‘Don’t spit just anywhere. Don’t urinate just anywhere. Don’t overshoot the toilet when urinating or defecating. Don’t greet friends noisily on the street, and don’t just stand around talking.’ More than half a decade has passed since the Spiritual Civilisation Guidance Commission promoted the notion of ‘civilised travel’. Yet reports of ‘uncivilised’ behaviour are multiplying. Among the list of frequently cited bad behaviours, besides littering, ‘speaking loudly’ and spitting, are ‘snatching bus seats’, ‘queue-jumping’, ‘taking off shoes and socks in public’, ‘bad temper and cursing’ and ‘smoking in non-smoking areas’.

The Case of Taiwan

Ever since allowing group tours from the Mainland in 2008, Taiwan has become one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists because of proximity, shared language and cultural connections. Since 2011, Taiwan has also welcomed a limited number of individual travellers from the People’s Republic. According to the Taiwan Straits Tourism Association, 2.6 million visitors from the Mainland came in 2012, up 45 percent from 2011.

Representatives from both sides of the Taiwan Straits are discussing the possibility of increasing the quotas for Chinese visitors from the People’s Republic to 5,000 a day for those on group tours (up from 3,000 a day) and 2,000 for solo travellers (up from 1,000 a day). It’s still far from 10,000, the figure mooted by President Ma Ying-jeou during his 2008 election campaign when he argued that tourists from the Mainland, with their average daily spend of US$300, would stimulate Taiwan’s economy. According to one report, one job is created for every ten tourists who come into Taiwan, and that opens up three other employment opportunities. It is estimated that Chinese visitors will bring Taiwan approximately US$330 million a year by 2013.

Tourists from the Mainland pose right after shopping at Taipei 101, a landmark commercial centre and skyscraper in Taipei, March 2009. Source: ImagineChina

Tourists from the Mainland pose right after shopping at Taipei 101, a landmark commercial centre and skyscraper in Taipei, March 2009.
Source: ImagineChina

Although the financial gains are evident, some people in Taiwan are questioning whether the negative impact on the environment and quality of life there may be outweighing the benefits. There are familiar complaints about mainland tourists shouting, queue-jumping, smoking in non-smoking zones, as well as chomping on guazi (瓜子, spiced watermelon seeds) during cultural performances, lacking respect for civic order, and disrupting the atmosphere and normal operations of the National Palace Museum, where they’re said to behave as if in a noisy night market. Although museum staff walk around the exhibitions holding signs requesting visitors to speak softly, the tour groups treat them as if they were invisible. To cater for local visitors who do not want to squeeze through the chaotic throngs to contemplate the famed Jadeite Cabbage or other treasures, beginning on 15 June 2012, the museum extended its opening hours on Wednesday and Friday nights. No tour groups are allowed during the extended hours of operation. Some disgruntled local residents want the museum to dedicate an entire day for visitors to enjoy the exhibits without interference from such groups. Angry Taipei resident Yang Wen-chung, echoing a popular saying from the Anti-Japanese War, ‘Give me back China’ (huan wo Zhonghua 還我中華), said, ‘Give me back the National Palace Museum’ (huan wo Gugong 還我故宫). In March 2013, when the National Palace Museum decided to raise its admission price from NT$160 (US$5.39) to NT$250 (US$8.42), people complained that the museum wanted to profit from the influx of mainland tourists without considering whether this would create hardship for locals wanting to visit.

The Taipei Palace Museum. Source: ImagineChina

The Taipei Palace Museum.
Source: ImagineChina

Many others have complained that mainland tourists have disrupted the peace and quiet that places such as Alishan or Sun Moon Lake famously enjoyed in the past. While hotel chains now operate at full capacity during peak seasons, family-owned hostels are losing business. The owner of a small bed and breakfast in Alishan that used to cater mainly to Japanese tourists is now mostly vacant because the Japanese refuse to return or to recommend it to their friends due to the unpleasant experiences of having to tour the attractions with so many Mainlanders shoving and shouting on their cell phones or to one another as they take photos and compare shopping expenses.

Does allowing Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan promote cross-Straits understanding and improve relationships between the two regions? President Ma Ying-jeou has claimed that the tourists will be exposed to democracy and democratic values by watching Taiwanese television in their hotel rooms. Erika Guan, a student from Beijing currently living in Taipei, has said that mainland tourists will be able to see how Taiwan society is ‘really harmonious’ — ‘harmony’ (hexie 和谐) being a stated goal of China’s Communist leadership. Though she and President Ma are optimistic, those who interact with Chinese tourists on a daily basis tend to be less sanguine. Kao Hui-Ch’iao, a sixty-year-old volunteer at Taroko National Park stated to a reporter: ‘They just aren’t very civilised’. (For their part, Chinese tourists reportedly find Taiwan ‘more civilised’.) Taiwanese have been shocked to see Chinese tourists carving their names and more on agave plants inside a botanical garden in Taitung City, into trees at a Buddhist temple and leaving graffiti on one of the famous Yeliu rock formations on Taiwan’s northern coast. Although the Taiwan media has reported on the phenomenon of Chinese visitors buying many tins of infant milk formula to take back home, the phrase Chinese ‘locusts’ (huangchong 蝗虫) has not caught on in Taiwan as it has in Hong Kong. There, more than 12,500 outraged people concerned about a milk powder shortage signed a petition to the White House entitled ‘Baby Hunger Outbreak in Hong Kong, International Aid Requested’. Hong Kong mothers assert that infant milk powder has become so scarce they must travel to more remote areas to obtain this basic necessity.

Tourists looking at the famed Jadeite Cabbage, Taipei Palace Museum. Source: ImagineChina

Tourists looking at the famed Jadeite Cabbage, Taipei Palace Museum.
Source: ImagineChina

While there have been calls to suspend the multiple-entry permit scheme for individual mainland tourists to prevent smugglers from coming into Hong Kong to purchase goods to sell back in China at exorbitant prices, National People’s Congress deputy Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, Hong Kong’s former security chief, said he ‘hoped Hong Kong could remain an open city that welcomed travellers’. However, the baby milk controversy is not the only contentious issue. Conflicts have arisen here too over incidents of unacceptable behaviour. Several widely circulated Internet videos and media reports document disputes between Chinese tourists and Hong Kong residents. In these, Hong Kong residents are seen reprimanding Chinese visitors for behaviour such as allowing their children to eat on the Metropolitan Rapid Transit system (against the rules), or allowing their children to urinate in a bottle in a restaurant or defecate on the road. With anti-Mainland sentiment rising in Hong Kong, officials worry about the loss of revenue should the Chinese tourists spend their money elsewhere.

Panorama image of Hung Hom MTR Station in Hong Kong, 30 July 2013. Photo: See-ming Lee 李思明, SML Photography, SML Universe Limited

Panorama image of Hung Hom MTR Station in Hong Kong, 30 July 2013.
Photo: See-ming Lee 李思明, SML Photography, SML Universe Limited

Most places regard the new tourists as a mixed blessing. The balance between economic gain and ‘quality of life’ is a delicate one. Harvey Dzodin warns that the image of the ‘ugly Chinese’ may even wreck the nation’s soft power efforts. However, as the China Youth Daily observes, the ‘uncivilised behaviour of many Chinese people cannot be eradicated in just a few days. It needs long-term efforts.’